Wales v England: a watershed moment?

Dylan Moore revisits a recent radio documentary about the cultural significance of Wales at Euro 2016

I have a dream that one day we’ll be able to enjoy a big sporting occasion in Wales without trying to superimpose politico-cultural significance upon it. I have a dream that one day in Wales, we’ll be able to engage the whole nation in political and cultural discourse without having to wrap everything in either the flag or the metaphors of sport. I also have a dream that Gareth Bale will score a perfect hat trick today: a left-footed curler into the top corner, a thunderous low drive with his right and a powerful header to finish the job.

‘Football,’ contends Elis James in a two-part Radio 4 documentary aired last week, ‘the game that all of Wales plays, conveys the complexities and contrariness of modern Wales, and our real relationship with England, in a way that rugby’s cliches simply ignore’. If that will seem sacrilegious to some, then he must be partly right.

As a football supporter in Wales, James resents being part of a subculture: despite soccer’s status as a global sport and the statistics that prove beyond all doubt that more people play and watch football in Wales than either rugby or anything else, it is the pomp and circumstance of a Six Nations matchday that ‘pierces the wider British consciousness’, bound up as it is in a century-old view of Wales as a land of coalminers and choristers.

Comedian James’ main point – in a serious documentary that includes contributions from the likes of politics professor and former footballer Laura McAllister, historians Martin Johnes and Dai Smith, poet Gwyneth Lewis and sociologist Simon Kuper – is that today’s game could offer a watershed moment: the unthinkable, unlikely idea that football could usurp rugby as the recognised national sport of Wales.

Given our propensity to elevate the politico-cultural significance of sporting occasions to frankly preposterous levels, that idea is incendiary enough – but James couples it with the idea that somehow such a shift could usher in a new era, at least for perceptions of Wales in the wider world. United, post-industrial, bilingual, international – the dream of modern Welsh progressives is better articulated through Chris Coleman’s geographically diverse and multiethnic football squad than the Old South Wales establishment of the WRU. 

For many it will be an attractive argument, and James is backed by credible voices. ‘If we can get sport right,’ argues Laura McAllister, ‘then we can create the conditions to change the social fabric as well.’  In the context of the programme, ‘getting sport right’ seems to entail making a national shift in the direction of the round ball code that dominates the globe. Historically, we’ve taken pride in our prominence in a minority sport – but now we’re good at football, it is time to take a place at the top table (and we’ve already been projected on the Eiffel Tower!).

But the crux of the debate – if indeed there is one – is not about a choice between football and rugby. As James himself admits in the programme, most sports fans in Wales enjoy both. It is about the myth of Welsh exceptionalism. Welsh rugby has, for various reasons outlined by the programme’s historians, built an image for itself of exceptionality. Owen Sheers’ book Calon covered this territory: the Welsh working class taking on and beating their English colonial masters from the public schools is a foundation myth of the national side. Gwyneth Lewis calls it a ‘substitute for patriotism and politics’. James’ programme dutifully references Phil Bennett’s famous 1977 team talk (it is part of the curse, see: you can’t make a documentary, or indeed write an article, about the cliches of Welsh national identity without returning to the most familiar touchstones yourself – he also professes to hate Kelly Jones’ awful 1999 hit ‘As Long As We Beat the English’, but we are ‘treated’ to a good couple of minutes of it nonetheless). Populist narratives buried deep in the national psyche are very difficult to untangle – but this is precisely what James is hoping today’s match will do.

It is a delicious paradox. The hopes of a modern, progressive version of Welsh identity hang on the outcome of a Wales versus England sporting fixture. Dai Smith thinks it’s a paradox we need – ironically ‘we need a national sport more’ nowadays, precisely because Wales is diverse and divided. Together, Stronger – the FAW slogan – is no accident. Football, according to this view, represents a pluralist Wales – set against the one-dimensional cliches of rugby. And today’s fixture, rather than being a rehash of stories that can be carbon-dated to long before the days of Owain Glyndwr, is a chance to reflect on our contemporary, complicated relationship with England. Over a fifth of Welsh people were born in England and many – even nationalists! – have strong cross-border ties that go way beyond football. A highlight of the programme was hearing the following sentiment expressed in a strong Anglesey accent: ‘Culture crosses every boundary, and you can like anything from anywhere’.

But perhaps one of the reasons we can warm to such sentiments is because they contrast with the boorish version of English identity exported by the England football team’s ever-present idiot fringe. The Welsh media could not wait to highlight the contrast between the ugly scenes in Marseille, where English thugs apparently delighted in chanting ‘F- off Europe, we’re all voting out’, to the civilised cross-cultural bonhomie in Bordeaux, where Wales’ travelling supporters danced in the streets with those of their Slovak opponents and their French hosts. The story is different but the subtext is the same: we tell ourselves we are different. Who are we? Not England; that’s who – like the proverbial Canadian backpacker with a maple leaf on her rucksack.

Martin Johnes traces the emerging sense of Welsh nationhood in the early twentieth century to the coalboom and a win against New Zealand. Laura McAllister calls football a process and rugby an event. Dai Smith says that as barometers of social change, rugby is seen as deep and football is surface. Elis James ends by wondering what a Wales based around football would be like. It’s all enough to make one wonder (even an ardent Welsh football supporter like me) whether we’ll ever reach that true watershed moment: a nonconformist separation not of church and state but of politics and sport. Come on Wales!

Dylan Moore is Comment & Analysis Editor at the IWA.

3 thoughts on “Wales v England: a watershed moment?

  1. Interesting article to read, but the bit at the end wondering whether we will reach a watershed moment where we see a separation of politics and sport, implying that would be a good thing does make me wonder. Is it such a bad thing that these things become entwined and would it be natural to divorce the two?. Personally I don’t believe it would be and I can’t think of anywhere in this world where that is ever likely to happen.

  2. I don’t know whether football will usurp rugby as the ‘national’ game or not and I frankly don’t care. But I loved Dai Smith’s line that Laura McAllister was ‘talking through her plimsolls’ – made it worth listening through all that footy propaganda 🙂

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